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Winter Olympic gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold races head first into new life of fame

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: March 04, 2014

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IF she had not taken to the ice so naturally, Lizzy Yarnold reckons she could have been an environmentalist, perhaps seeking out friendlier energy sources.

Instead, she won skeleton gold in Sochi and carved her name into Olympic history.

Two weeks after her victory in Russia, the University of Gloucestershire graduate in geography and sports psychology is still consumed by the euphoria that comes after inspiring a nation.

She has had photos posted on her Twitter account of children wearing helmets emulating her victory on homemade sleds.

On the street she has been met with cheers from passers-by congratulating her on her success.

And when the time came to meet the Prime Minister, fresh out of his flood-drenched wellies to greet Great Britain's snow and ice heroes, she had the pleasure of knocking on the door to No 10 herself.

She has even had to deal with the unpredictability of the British rail system, which meant our interview with Britain's fastest woman on ice had to be delayed by one hour.

"The train was unnecessarily stressful," said 25-year-old Yarnold, who only a fortnight ago was hurtling more than 80mph head first down a bending ice tunnel. "But I got there in the end."

During the post-Olympic media rounds, it seems even medallists have to take into account train timetables.

"I am not entirely sure how it has been (since I won gold) – it has gone so quickly," she said. "I am an athlete first and foremost, so I am not used to this kind of attention.

"I trained my mind so that I couldn't think past the finish line on the fourth and last run in Sochi.

"I knew everything that I was doing – from how I trained to what I was eating and what I was drinking down to a fine detail – and now, since I have finished, it has taken off in such a good way."

Cheltenham General Hospital staff have jumped on the Lizzy Yarnold bandwagon, naming one of the hospital's skeleton models after the speed racer.

"Touch wood, I haven't had any broken bones yet," Lizzy, who lived in Brunswick Street, Cheltenham, joked. "But I would like to meet my own skeleton one day and maybe have a picture with it.

"I am getting a lot of good feedback from people everywhere I go.

"I was in a taxi queue this morning and people were honking me and coming up to me, saying how it's nice that I have made a difference. That's quite a good feeling."

It was at university, while taking lectures at the sports facilities at the Oxstalls campus, in Gloucester, she was approached by Team GB.

A chance to audition for a position on the winter team came about and the then heptathlete passed with flying colours, to the delight of her lecturers who know how hard she had worked for such an opportunity.

"There was a chance to join the GB team advertised at the university," Lizzy recalled. "I had just finished my first year and, after that, I was away training when perhaps I should have been in lectures.

"But the university was very flexible and helped me a lot when I was away.

"I think a lot of what I have learned over the years has stayed with me, especially things from university.

"As part of my sports psychology dissertation, I was looking at mental toughness and interviewing athletes about staying mentally strong and how it made a difference for them.

"As an athlete now, for me, the difference is how strong you are in your mind when you are put under pressure and how you focus on your training."

Milliseconds that win gold aren't only gained with agility and fitness.

Brain training allowed Yarnold to keep her nerve on that final run last month to complete her medal ambition.

But her ambitions don't stop there.

Before she joined university from her family home in Kent, even though athletics was her primary goal, she thought about the prospect of going into environmental science, hence her studies in geography which she did alongside her classes with Denise Hill, the university's head lecturer in sport and exercise psychology.

"I have got a passion for a lot of different things in my life," she continued. "I am really interested in green energy and I got involved in that as part of my geography course.

"That could have been a path for me, but I also wanted to do a Masters in supplied sports psychology and is something I still might consider over the next few years."

Her life would once have been spent balancing her books with her physical training – away on a GB camp with an essay deadline in the back of her mind.

Now, she has a different challenge: finding the belief to carry on.

Embracing the attention will also be a factor but finding that mental toughness she speaks of to get back on the horse – to do it all over again if she so desires – is the next big step after the dust settles on the winter games in Sochi.

For now, she will continue to enjoy the limelight, which most Olympic athletes tell, from experience, will come and go in a flash.

"Meeting David Cameron was really fun," she said. "It was very surreal and I got to knock on the door at No 10.

"It was exciting and I was surprised to see how big the building was inside. A once in a lifetime experience.

"I'm enjoying it and it would be great to come back and show my gold medal to my old class one day.

"I would like to go back to the university because I still have a lot of friends based in Cheltenham and Gloucester.

"I have had quite a lot of messages from old friends through social media and I have two of my best friends from university that I am still very close with."

The name Lizzy Yarnold may be famous.

Yet, there is something that tells you she won't allow the limelight to change her or let it lift her feet off the ground.

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